Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2, 2020
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
We hear this story every year at this time – the lectionary brings it to us in the season of summer festivals and outdoor worship, but it certainly sounds different now that we have been living for months in a pandemic. Whatever mental picture we may have had of a lovely big picnic seems jarring now that we have begun to take small gatherings and masks and social distancing for granted. Five thousand people eating together, sharing food – probably coughing on each other and laughing, maybe even singing! It’s another little reminder of how much has changed for us. Perhaps another little moment of discouragement.
We see a very discouraged, very human Jesus at the beginning of this reading. He is just kind of tired – he has been preaching and teaching and healing at a breakneck pace, when he stops at his hometown of Nazareth, and there encounters skepticism and resistance. He takes it in stride and walks away, but then hears very bad news. His cousin, and inspiration, John the Baptist, has been arrested by King Herod, and then executed by beheading. Disheartened and grieving, Jesus withdraws from the crowds to be alone. He takes a boat to find a quiet spot.
But the crowds won’t let him be. They follow on foot, clamouring and calling to him, hoping for a word of healing or a story or a blessing. And despite his tiredness, Jesus is so moved by them that he begins again. At the end of the day, the disciples try to insist that he send them away. The people need food, send them to the village. But Jesus says, you feed them. Give them something.
This takes the disciples aback. They weren’t thinking of that, and they are tired too. As we all know from covid, when you are fighting discouragement and fatigue, just getting through the day is your goal. They aren’t game for a miracle. When Jesus says, you do something, they can’t think what it would be.
We can probably identify with this sense of inadequacy. These last few months have been long and hard. Every single person in the world has had to make life adjustments because of covid-19, some more dramatic than others, and we are realizing that back to normal, even when it comes, isn’t going to feel very normal. Trying to figure out a sustainable rhythm for work and school and church as we head into the fall, is going to be a challenge.
And the larger social questions still loom. Profound and increasing inequalities of wealth and access. Historical exclusions based on ethnicity and class and gender. Unresolved relationships with indigenous peoples. The persistence of anti-black racism 180 years after the abolition of slavery. And who on earth can tell us what is unfolding south of the border? There is a lot to worry about. And Christians now, like the disciples in the story, may find ourselves called to action but at a loss to know how to proceed.
The disciples are embarrassed by the paltry five loaves and two fish they can muster. But Jesus doesn’t berate them or hector them to do better. He doesn’t ask them to offer what they don’t have. He starts with what they do have. That is all he asks of any of us. Your time, your small action, your willingness to learn and change. In refugee support, in Black Lives Matter activities, in reconciliation or anti-poverty work. When Jesus says, ‘give them something’, it’s an invitation to engage. To begin. And then persevere.
We all have our own take on the outcome – was it a good old-fashioned shazam miracle with masses of food appearing from nowhere? Ho, come to the waters, come eat and drink, as Tina read to us from Isaiah. Was it a miracle of kindness and generosity, that suddenly the whole crowd was able to share with each other? Was it just a story they told about Jesus when they remembered how wonderful he was and how much they loved him? Remembered the sense that he himself was within them? Did the numbers grow every time they told the story of that beautiful summer day on the hillside eating together?
It’s the story of a picnic – a story of abundance, and of the power of God’s love to overcome tiredness and discouragement. May we too dare to offer simply what we have, in the sure and certain hope that everything we bring to the picnic will be blessed and multiplied to meet the needs of God’s world. Amen.
Image: ‘Sinugba’ by Clint Bustrillos – unsplash.com